Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Carien Smith

Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Carien Smith

This year is the fourth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 3 to 7, 2019 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 600 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Carien Smith. You can read our Q&As with Dan Musgrave, Lola Opatayo, and Jonaki Ray on our blog.

Carien Smith is a Johannesburg-based academic and award-winning writer in both English and Afrikaans. Carien grew up in the Eastern Cape, and is currently a contract lecturer and research associate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, where she has just submitted her dissertation for a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, focusing on Value Theory and the Apocalypse. She has published multiple research articles in various accredited academic journals, and has contributed to a literary theory encyclopaedia. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Climate Change Ethics and Epistemology. Her research areas include Absurdity, Value Theory, the Apocalypse, Climate Change Ethics, Epistemic Injustice, and Ecocriticism.

Carien has been a finalist for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award twice (2016, 2018), and is elated to be a recipient of this award for 2019. In 2015 she was longlisted (6 longlistees) for the PEN International New Voices Award. She has won the AdHoc Flash Fiction competition (a Bath Flash Fiction Award project) twice (2018, 2016). In 2015 she received an Afrikoon from the ATKV (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation) for her contribution to Afrikaans literature and the arts. In 2009 her play titled “Formalien” was longlisted for the Nagtegaal Prize (10 longlistees). She has published multiple creative fiction pieces in books (Op die spoor van in 2017, Spreek die Woordin 2016, and Nuwe Stories 3in 2014), in newspapers, and other collaborations. Carien is also a professional member of PEN South Africa, and is currently working on finishing her debut short fiction collection, to be published by one of the top publishing houses in South Africa.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I originally started applying for the award in the first year it was awarded – for the 2016 award. I have since been a finalist twice. I simply did a search on the internet for writing awards and found the IWR award, deciding to give it a chance regardless of whether I believed I stood any chance of being a recipient or not (I didn’t).

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

No, I have not.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

Writing while being in Iceland (naturally!).

Meeting writers from multiple backgrounds and countries, especially the distinguished faculty.

Seeing Iceland. Some of my creative writing have an ecocritical perspective that connects with my academic work (the apocalypse, climate change ethics, ecocriticism in literature). I believe that my environmental focus as an academic and writer means that Iceland is an ideal location to inspire my writing and research, academically and creatively.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Brilliant writing – academic and creative – that makes me want to work to become as good, or even better, than those who wrote those words.

Then there are the writers that inspire me. I believe that my style of writing is a combination of the magical realism of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, and the surrealism and absurdity of writers such as Jan Rabie (an Afrikaans writer), Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus, with the sharpness, wit, and macabre undertones of Roald Dahl’s style. I write with the goal to cut through the skin, straight to the bone, and to bring to attention some of the truths that are lurking beneath the surface, but sometimes with a macabre twist.

On the other hand, there is the academic inspiration from certain philosophers and academics, some of whom I know personally. Professor Thaddeus Metz, who supervised my Master’s Degree in Philosophy, is an extraordinary academic who is a prime example that structure, discipline, hard work, and grit are the things that gets one where one needs to and wants to go. The impact he has had goes beyond my academic work. I wouldn’t have the writing abilities that I have today without his guidance. Then there are the other academics and philosophers whose work has inspired me (too many to mention here).

Lastly (but firstly), my mother, who is an Afrikaans literature academic and poet. I was honoured to grow up in a family who always supported me in growing and developing all of my abilities and following every dream, regardless of whether I was making the right choices or not.

How has writing influenced your life?

It is not only my creative writing, but also my academic writing that influences my life and me as a person. In terms of creative writing, I always look at the world and consider how things could have otherwise been, also “stealing” pieces of people, things, events, and emotions. As an academic writer, and specifically becoming an academic philosopher, I always look at the world analytically, considering the various perspectives and possible positions.

These two forms of expression and investigation – creative and academic– work in a dialectical fashion in my life and influences me as a person.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

I can sometimes be too analytical and structured in my creative writing. I am better with developing the bigger picture – overall themes and ideas within my work – than focusing on the smaller details of characters and their emotions. I am an extremely structured person and that sometimes shows in my writing.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

 I have applied for this award multiple times. It only shows that persistence works, as it does in most things in life. Since starting to enter for this award in 2015 I have continually challenged myself to develop my writing and to work on multiple projects to continue learning (to hopefully one day master) this elusive art, if it is possible. Writing is not easy and one has to keep going at it at a steady and disciplined pace, regardless of whether the muse makes an appearance or not.

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